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When we were checking in for our trip to New Zealand, I was hoping that we might get upgraded for the long flight from San Francisco to Auckland. I'm tall, I have trouble sleeping on airplanes, so it'd be nice to have the better seats. We didn't luck out, and in retrospect, I'm glad.

Flying is a huge part of my carbon emissions, and as it's often for vacation travel, it's discretionary and the easiest item to reduce to do my part in fighting global warming. When you fly business class, you're sitting in seats that have (by my guesstimate) about a third of the seating density of regular coach seats. That means you have three times the carbon impact.

It'd be truly decadent to triple the environmental damage for just a bit of extra comfort. If we're going to do fun things that are bad for the planet, we might as well be slightly uncomfortable and feel the pain. I'll stick with coach--until we're ready to pass on more flights.

And no, I don't buy the argument that the plane is going to fly anyway, and a few business class seats don't make any difference.

PS: this post may sound preachy, and I suppose in part I even intend it that way. I keep noticing that there's little discussion among friends about actual trade offs or sacrifices we're making in the face of global warming. I think it's time that we start talking about and gently start generating some peer pressure to be more thoughtful and occasionally make other decisions. Buying a hybrid is not giving up a piece of your lifestyle. There are tougher choices to be made. I think it would help if we had a sense that others around us (our peers) were taking these choices seriously.



( 15 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 17th, 2009 06:07 am (UTC)
I think you're right in the general case, but that a free upgrade is a special case - they generally only happen when there are available seats in business class and overbooking in economy, so by virtue of someone getting an upgrade, one more person gets to fit onto the same plane than otherwise.
Apr. 17th, 2009 05:48 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I suppose I agree with that.

I simplified the story a bit--in reality, if we'd been on an airline that we have frequent flyer miles with, we likely would have used the miles to get an upgrade, and so it's really that scenario that I'm glad didn't work out.
Apr. 17th, 2009 07:34 am (UTC)
There are tougher choices to be made

True, but they're not always possible. My business is hosting. I could stop doing that altogether and have no income, or I could (and I do) host in a data center that has this:


Would that be acceptable?
Apr. 17th, 2009 05:54 pm (UTC)
Ya know, while the aggregate hosting of internet services amounts to a lot of power consumption that we didn't have 20 years ago, it's not the biggest thing I'm worried about. For one, because anything that's electrical is easier to feed from clean replacement sources. (Good luck with that electric airplane...) For another, because data centers have strong incentives to keep power usage down.

I'm too lazy to do the math on the 24/7/365 power consumption of your servers, but I bet you burn more than that on your annual trip to Curacao...
Apr. 18th, 2009 07:06 am (UTC)
My servers: about 20,000 kWh per year, which creates about 10,000 of co2.

My annual flight is about 1600 kg of co2.

Guess which one I wanted neutral first?
Apr. 18th, 2009 07:34 am (UTC)
10,000 kg, of course.
Apr. 19th, 2009 07:27 pm (UTC)
Interesting, somewhat counter-intuitive.

20,000 kWh/yr = 2.2 kW consumption on average. That seems like a whole LOT of server. Average consumption for a decent racked machine is, what? 50-100W? So 15-20 servers plus a bunch of routers and other junk?
Apr. 20th, 2009 07:19 am (UTC)
Sounds about right - and a couple of the servers are 16-disk raids, and there's couple with two quad core xeons, and those tend to draw quite a lot of power as well.
Apr. 20th, 2009 07:21 am (UTC)
Oh, and I've got one full and one half 19" rack in the datacenter :-)
Apr. 17th, 2009 09:56 pm (UTC)
I used to spend more time talking about carbon impact and other environmentalist ideas, and then Jon Evans summarized my thoughts on the subject so well that I stopped trying:

Apr. 17th, 2009 11:27 pm (UTC)
Before I post an enormously long ramble in response, can you say a bit more on how you see this applying to my post? I'm not sure if you're reacting to the proselytizing part, or pointing out the futility of my personal actions, or arguing the futility of any personal actions by anyone in the U.S.?

Do you think that global warming is just another silly Malthusian catastrophe prediction that will fail to come true like all the other ones you say have been predicted in the past 200 years?
Apr. 17th, 2009 11:55 pm (UTC)
Taking those questions in reverse order:

I think that there's a lot of evidence to show that global warming is a real phenomenon, but I think that some of the more extreme doom-and-gloom predictions of some environmentalists relating to global warming are just ridiculous. James Lovelock at one point was claiming that global warming would cause the extinction of the entire human race except for a few "breeding pairs" in the Arctic and Antarctic Circles within 100 years. That's not a scientific prediction; that's a post-apocalypse movie. (Admittedly, he's backed off of that stance since then, but still.)

I don't think your actions are futile. I might gently suggest that your goals are laudable but your energy is misplaced. Speaking for myself, I would much prefer to be in the more comfortable seat while providing financial support for the folks working on (for instance) economically sustainable sources of power.

A simple example: right now installing a solar cell system for a home or small business isn't cost sustainable. The install costs far outweigh the savings you'll get in operating the solar cell system long term. There are a number of people at UW and elsewhere working on the manufacturing and efficiency problem, and if they succeed, suddenly you have an economic incentive to switch to less carbon-intensive power. That saves far, far more carbon emissions than a single plane flight.

Like Jon, I'd rather put my environmentalist effort into areas where I think you'll get the maximum value for the effort and money. I don't see my discomfort in a steerage-class plane seat as doing enough to make the suffering worthwhile.
Apr. 18th, 2009 12:57 am (UTC)
Thing is, though, that as far as I know about your life and where you spend your energy, you're not directly working to do anything about global warming. Nor about animal cruelty, spousal abuse, traffic fatalities, genocides, cancer, or world peace. Jon's post reasons that "first, do no harm" is a useless stance and one needs to engage with the core issues to contribute anything useful. Are we, by induction, supposed to conclude that you just don't care about any of those things? Or that it's OK to care and not do anything as long as you also don't do anything "useless"?

Furthermore, each of us may care about several of these issues. As we aren't all able to contribute to solutions for all issues we care about, we can try to contribute *somewhere*, and in the meantime I'd argue that it helps to contribute as little as possible to the problems.

E.g., you and I will decide to adopt an animal from a shelter rather than buying from a breeder (*and* then get that animal 'fixed'), despite the fact that this does not greatly reduce the fundamental problem. What Jon's argument seems to say is that it's not worth bothering with the shelter animal; if you care, you should work to increase spay/neuter rates, or to shut down breeders, or something else fundamental.

Ah, you say, but in the animal adoption case you make a difference in a specific animal's life, whereas in the global warming situation the personal action of individuals don't add up to anything, especially when India and China are building a coal fired power plant every 14 seconds.

Global warming is not a zero sum game. If emissions are reduced in one place, they aren't automatically produced somewhere else instead. (At least, not until there's a global cap & trade system.) Jon's argument that moderation in the U.S. is made irrelevant by development in China and India is a load of hogwash. Americans contribute more per capita to global warming than residents of any other country, and at 300 million, the cumulative effects are far from trivial. Furthermore, if we expect other countries to make any adjustments, we ARE going to have to adjust our lifestyles, too. What I've been reading lately, based on seemingly credible scientific models and data, suggests to me that lifestyle adjustments (not just changes in energy sources) are going to be necessary.

You may be an optimist and think that Malthusian problems never play out in the catastrophic ways people fear they will, that we'll come in for a soft landing on this one, generating new technological solutions to produce a soft landing that doesn't require any lifestyle changes. I hope you're right. But I doubt it. Seeing the accounting in the book linked above for the changes necessary in the British energy economy, and knowing that U.S. per capita emissions are nearly 2X those of the British, it's hard to see how we're going to produce the electricity or biofuels needed to make the switch. Boosting a bit of efficiency here and there isn't going to do it. (Most relevant to the flying issue, the book cites claims that airplanes fundamentally cannot get much more efficient--10% yes, 50% never.)

I agree with your claim in your comment that most civilizations don't fail abruptly, they fail slowly. But I'd argue that they fail once they get too far down a destructive path to the point where they don't have the means to dig themselves out of the hole, whether that hole is deforestation, salinity of the soil, or whatever. Translated to the global warming picture, the exact question is how far we can go down the slope before we will be unable to prevent dramatic effects. (Dramatic would be a sea level rise of a few meters, displacing large populations, or major droughts destroying currently fertile agricultural areas. Millions of deaths.)

We should by all means turn to people with credible models for estimates, not to James Lovelock. And we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking that if everyone does a little, it adds up. Little bits don't add up. If everyone helps by reducing their emissions by 1%, then the U.S. emissions go down by 1%. Not good enough.

Apr. 18th, 2009 01:37 am (UTC)
I've been debating buying the MacKay book. I'd be interested in a longer review if you feel like writing one.
Apr. 28th, 2009 08:08 pm (UTC)
The book is available online for free, both in PDF and some of it also in plain HTML. That means it's easy to see if it appeals to you. I read most of the book, in PDF form on my laptop.

The aim of the book is to discuss the need for and potential of alternate energy sources in a data-driven fashion. MacKay makes sketches of the UK's energy need, ticking through major usage categories and showing where he gets his numbers. (I'm not qualified to judge whether he's picking reasonable sources.) Interleaved are estimates of the contribution each alternative might make. He's not overly concerned with getting the numbers exactly right--he aims to get into the right ballpark to give the reader a sense of the lay of the land.

MacKay's goal, in essence, is to show people how to create approximate models of different ways forward--using actual numbers, even if they are cocktail napkin numbers. He wants to counteract numberless discussions of the type "Britain has a lot of wind, so we should capture it and solve our energy needs through wind power" by putting some numbers to that scenario. OK, if Britain deployed N turbines, taking up M square miles off shore, or P miles of shoreline, how much of our energy needs would that meet. 10%? 50% 100%. He claims that he isn't trying to promote any particular solutions or policies.

I found the book easy to read, but hard to retain. It's a constant flow of factoids and numbers, so one chapter washed the content of the previous out of my head. Still, I appreciate the big picture sense I came away with, and some interesting specific arguments. (e.g. that air travel will never get radically more efficient.)

If you pick it up, I'll be very curious to hear your reactions.
( 15 comments — Leave a comment )



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